The Non-Governmental Organizations (“NGO”) Act of 2016 replaced the NGO Registration Act Cap 113. It is considered to be the culmination of a long campaign to more closely regulate and monitor the work of Non-Governmental Organizations, as well as a campaign in opposition to that goal. The Act follows an NGO Act of 1989, amended in 2006, and Registration Regulations proposed in 2009, both of which closely monitored NGOs and gave the NGO Board significant power. After those regulations were challenged in court, this new Act was created to bypass ruling on that petition. The finalized Act is seen as a way to restrict civil society.
The NGO Act of 2016 lists its objectives, however, which are to: (1) establish an administrative and regulatory framework within which organizations can conduct their affairs; (2) promote and require organizations to maintain high standards of governance, transparency, and accountability; (3) promote a spirit of cooperation, mutual partnership, and shared responsibility between the organizations sector, the Ministries, the Government, and other stakeholders; (4) provide the development of strong organizations and facilitate the formation and effective function of organizations for public benefit purpose; and (5) promote and strengthen the capacity of the organizations sector that is sustainable and able to deliver services professionally; (6) promote the development of self-regulation among organizations; (7) provide an enabling environment for the organizations sector; (8) strengthen the capacity of the Bureau; and (9) promote and develop a charity culture that is voluntary, non-partisan, and relevant to the needs and aspirations of the people of Uganda.
Summary of act:
President Yoweri Museveni signed the Non-Governmental Organizations bill into law on March 9, 2016. Under the Act, all Non-Governmental Organizations have to register with the NGO Board. An NGO is defined as “a legally constituted non-governmental organization … which may be a private voluntary grouping of individuals or associations established to provide voluntary services to the community or any part, but not for profit or commercial purposes.” Community Based Organizations are also regulated by this Act, but are not a legal person once registered.
The Act first establishes an NGO Bureau, which advises the Minister of internal affairs and formulates, develops, and issues policy guidelines for the effective monitory of organizations. Additionally, the Bureau can make recommendations to authorities with regard to whether an organization may be exempted from the taxes and duties required by the Act. The Bureau can additionally afford other privileges and immunities to certain groups.
Underneath the Bureau is a Board of Directors, which oversees the implementation of the Bureau’s policies, established procedures for financial management and accountability, and establish committees to perform different functions.
The Act additionally establishes a District Non-Governmental Organizations Monitoring Committee in every district and a Subcounty Non-Governmental Organizations Monitoring Committee in every sub-county. These monitoring committees monitor and provide information on the activities of organizations in their area and perform any other function that the Bureau deems necessary.
Any person or group of persons incorporated as an organization must register with the Bureau. To register, organizations must meet the requirements of the application. However, the Bureau can refuse to register organizations: (1) where the objectives of the organization as specified in its constitution are in contravention of the laws of Uganda, (2) where the application for registration does not comply with the requirements of the Act, and (3) where the applicant has given false or misleading information in any material particular. If the Bureau refuses to register an organization, the Bureau must inform the applicant in writing of the reasons for refusal.
Once registered, an organization cannot operate without a valid permit. A permit can be revoked if (1) the organization does not operate in accordance with its constitution, or (2) the organization contravenes any of the conditions or directions specified in the permit. The Act additionally allows for some organizations to apply to self-regulate their management.
Finally, the Act lists returns and information that must be given to the Bureau. Every NGO must annually submit a copy of audited books of account, a copy of the annual report, minutes of a general assembly or the governing body of the organization, and proof of payment of prescribed fees. Additionally, organizations may be required to provide information on sources of funding and estimates of its budget.
As mentioned before, this Act gives a substantial amount of power to the government, at the expense of the public. The powers granted to the Bureau and the Board are broad, with no limiting guiding principles beyond the objectives listed at the beginning. Additionally, the intense monitoring of groups stifles freedom of association, with multiple levels of monitoring and requests for information keeping track of all individuals in an organization and what activities they are performing.
The Act also gives broad powers to the Minister of internal affairs. Section 55(1) states, “The Minister may, after consultation with the Bureau, make regulations for giving full effect to this Act.” This language affords the Minister broad discretion to determine what actions would give full effect to the Act, and has no limiting principles, other than “consultation” with the Bureau, which is also not defined.
The reasons for rejecting a registration are also broad, and the term “contravenes the Constitution” (Section 30(1)) can be ambiguous. This allows the Bureau great power, because while they must provide the group the reason for the denial, there is broad discretion as to what the reason can be. Scholars have noted that organizations working on LGBTI, sex worker, drug use, and abortion issues would all likely be denied registration under this provision. Thus, this section is incredibly problematic for a democratic state.
Further, there are many requirements that organizations must follow that gives the Bureau a significant amount of control over their operations. Section 41 provides for inspection of the premises of an organization and affords the inspector the ability to request any information that “appears to him or her necessary for purposes of giving effect to this Act.”
Section 44 lists the special obligations of the organizations who are registered with the Bureau. Some sections are concerning. For instance, 44(f) requires organizations not to engage in activities “prejudicial to the security and laws of Uganda.” 44(g) also requires all NGOs to be non-partisan, forbidding them from supporting any political party or candidate for an office. These sections are clearly meant to curb the power of the public and to allow the Ugandan government to prevent any non-governmental organizations it dislikes.
Section 45 requires organizations to follow staffing requirements. Again, this is an intrusion into the organization that allows a great deal of control over its operations. Also, organizations are required to pay fees whenever the Bureau requires, which adds a level of financial oversight and control on top of the excessive information monitoring.
Finally, under Section 40, any person who commits an offense under this act is liable for a fine and possibly to imprisonment of not more than three years. This is an excessive amount of prison time that is presumably left up to the discretion of the courts, despite the offense possibly as small as operating slightly outside the conditions of one’s permit.
This level of control over all non-governmental organizations by a state that is intended to be a democracy is troublesome. If Uganda wants to promote freedom of democracy, they should update this Act to more clearly define the powers of the Bureau and other actors and to allow organizations to be registered, even if disapproved by the government, so long as they do not present a clear threat. Further, monitoring of organizations should be greatly reduced to allow individuals some privacy in their organizations.